Oct. 22, 2020
We Too, Belong.
EDITOR’S NOTE: In May 2020, 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed was shot and killed by Indianapolis Metropolitan Police during pursuit on foot following an alleged incidence of reckless driving. The moments preceding, during, and following the shooting were captured on Reed’s Facebook livestream. Reed was Black. A lawsuit claims “the police department failed to properly train, supervise and discipline [Officer Dejoure] Mercer, who fired the fatal shots, and others involved [including Deputy Chief Kendale Adams)] in the string of events that led to Reed’s death.” Reckless driving is typically a Class B misdemeanor in Indiana.
On May 6, 2020, Dreasjon Reed’s voice cried out over Facebook, “Somebody come get me,” as he fled in fear for his life. A cry that resonates with many seeking safety. A cry for belonging. Somebody. Come. Get. Me. Visceral in its raw plea to be protected. With his final words on this Earth, he bellowed to be seen, for his breath to be venerated with the lives of others. These are words I, too, have called out when I have found myself in a place of "un-belonging."
Public art leaders and patrons alike must come to terms with our implicit and explicit behaviors, which make us complicit in the preservation of white racial frameworks that impose a homogenous palette on our shared built environments. Spaces that create feelings of unbelonging for any one among us. This same pervasive framework has fabricated a veil of conservative, non-progressive, performative, exclusionary practices in Indianapolis.
Inclusion without intentionality is indifference. Indifference rooted itself in the psyche of a Black police officer on the scene of Dreasjon Reed's death, inspiring his comment, “I think it's going to be a closed casket, homie.” Indifference would cause a Black man to stand over another (lifeless) Black man and react with apathy.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
What breeds such apathy? The public spaces that engulf us are a leading culprit. They inform our behaviors and lived experiences. There is a search for sameness [equality] between communities. Some may consider this irrational. For we are one people, but not the same. We all have different needs, desires, and identities. Blackness as a spectrum of narratives cannot and should not be measured against the white imaginary.
From my vantage point as a Black urban planner and designer, design is the cornerstone of it all. Design informs our reality, and good design is invisible. Yet good design is apparent when the user doesn’t have to question the how or why of a thing, but simply just knows what to do with it upon initial contact. Our public spaces, our built environments have been designed to condition us to understand who belongs (and who doesn’t), who is valued and protected (and who isn’t). Public art proclaims our community values, centers our beliefs and provokes our assumptions. Daily, many of us maneuver around cities and towns that have transparently devalued we, who are non-white. We, the People – Indigenous People, Latinx People, Women People, Differently Abled People, LGBTQIA People, Black People – the Marginalized People – are the invisible canvases whereupon the grand experiments of placemaking happen.
I’ll be so bold: “placemaking” is a practice traditionally rooted in misdiagnosing place to be absent of people-led expertise. In essence, “We, the People,” have been removed from the conversation in designing place. Our creative interpretations in public space are few and far between, further emphasizing the devaluation of our identities. And on the rare occasion that the door is left open, there’s a caveat that renders We, the People powerless to affect true change.
Regarding the rise of freed men and women from the bonds of slavery in the 1860s and the egregious practice of redlining that took place soon after, acting as a precursor to contemporary gentrification, it is clear the absence of Black people in place is a measure of value. There’s no need to tiptoe around the sentiment. No, we do not need to abstract the reality. The Black experience is a kaleidoscope by way of the Diaspora. Blackness exists around the world, and the notion of a singular commonality – subordination – being linked to a biological phenotype, is bizarrely absurd. We must question this.
Vats of ink have been split in the pursuit to define, describe and decree the degrees of disenfranchisement that Black people and others have faced over the last 500 years in western society. What more can be said? Yet still, the testimonies must continue to be shared so as never to be forgotten. Through them can we begin to unlearn together and undo these systems of oppression?
Small towns in Ecuador, mountain villages in Costa Rica, stone-paved streets in Spain, tree-lined communities in our southern states, boutique neighborhoods along the Northeast Coast and sleepy communities in the Midwest – I’ve lived in and absorbed the experiences of each of these settings. Each delivers a particular vernacular, cadence and a reference to its residents of culture. And only in two of them have I have been called a “Nigger.” Both, spaces that centered white patriarchy and power vs shared experience and collaboration. As a citizen of many worlds, I embody the knowing of space and place as identifiers of wealth, an inheritor of white supremacy. When We, the People, design spaces through our own lens, by extension we naturally establish a collective wellness. Their structure is based on our own priorities, centering our personalized needs and celebrating our life force. When spaces are designed for us by those who lack proximity, spiritually or secularly, to our lived experience, there is often an unassailable gap in the interpretation of these needs.
The field of design in many ways mirrors the government-sponsored practice of violence. The school-to-prison pipeline, housing discrimination and the wealth gap, to name a few, are equally the results of such policies and practices. When the spaces we live in aesthetically and functionally devalue and ignore our existence, that is criminal. My chosen profession is culpable, having acted as agents of displacement since the Great Depression with respect to Black, Indigenous and Latinx people.
Design is in everything. Our homes, our streets, our stores, our tangibles, our clothes, our thinking. Racism is good design. It has influenced the collective physiology and psychology of every red-blooded body in the modern “colonized” world. The white racial framework seems to permeate the atomic levels of all spaces, including the ceilings, floors and walls of our thoughts and the policies, protocols and practices that maintain the status quo.
Somebody. Come. Get. Me
THE LOCAL VIEW
Indianapolis has never elected either a woman or person of color as Mayor. It is a major metropolitan area, sprawling 372 square miles with a population of 876,384 residents. Sixty-one percent of its residents identify as white, 28 percent identify as Black, and 10 percent identify as Latinx. With a history of white male leadership, it is a city that struggles to mitigate the factors relegating many of its residents to an existence of hate crimes, food deserts and swamps, without access to healthcare, and in some of the nation’s most dangerous zip codes, with dilapidated housing and deteriorating streets.
Indianapolis’ Downtown is re-emerging since having been boarded up since June 2020 following peaceful demonstrations and protests, which dissolved into riots influenced by the prejudiced actions of some police officers. The response to the public outcry for change has done nothing to address the deeper needs of our city’s residents and demonstrate respect for Black people in place. It's time we co-design a better world for all. Having a sensibility of shared humanity when designing policy sets a standard of underscoring the importance of heritage preservation and establishing a cultural canon that upholds the quality of life for us all.
The arts and humanities sector are no stranger to discrimination. Arts organizations directly influence and inform our public spaces and public programs. The inequities have grown like a cancer and we, now, have the opportunity to address them before they metastasize. Let’s finally ask questions instead of accepting what’s been handed to us:
Whose voices are centered?
Which identities are accepted and which are shunned?
When We, The People, do not see ourselves reflected in the landscape of our city's infrastructure with design elements that speak to our cultural milieu; nor statues, murals or other public art in our likeness, the outcome is a livelihood of distancing ourselves from an environment that has branded us as lifeless and unimportant. This erasure also feeds the cruelty and apathy that ignites the murderous fuel eliminating us day in and day out. We then fall into the burdens of poor health and broken spirit – weathered. Somebody. Come. Get. Me
The public demonstrations following the hate crimes that led to the losses of Dreasjon Reed and the many before and the many since, have begun to unlock the shackles of our shared illusion. Monuments are toppled, murals are painted and yet policies – policies – remain stagnant, and people are still being slaughtered. For each sector of our neoliberal existence, a power broker exists. Power brokers that saw a Black man (Jacob Blake) breaking up a fight and shot him seven times while other power brokers [police] witnessed a white man (Kyle Rittenhouse) with an AR-15-style gun standing with his hands raised after just murdering two men and proceeded to pass him on the street. I hope to draw attention to the status of public art in our community as one culprit among many that perpetuate the white spatial reality whereby white = right in the shared public spaces of our world and our minds.
THERE’S NO ROOM FOR THE PERFORMANCE ART OF ALLYSHIP
Credentialing or virtue-signaling are empty metrics to conquer devout and complicit racism. To allies, I challenge you to invest in a full systems overhaul. The design of racism has influenced the way we think and act. Lives are at stake and comfortable, bite-sized changes are ineffectual. Colossal cavities of misinformation, limited knowledge and willful ignorance fester within public, private, civic and community enterprises. When executive arts leadership states that it’s working to make a board “more representative” of the community or “diversifying” its programming, those efforts are inadequate. Treat the disease, not the symptoms.
- How are you acknowledging, claiming and sitting uncomfortably in your bias, prejudice and power imbalance?
- How are you challenging the arts and culture industry to stand on the tenets not just of equity but of justice and liberation? Do you want to?
- How do you define equity, justice and liberation? What are the steps you’re taking to manifest all three? Have you shared it publicly so you can then be held accountable to it?
- How are Black people in your network treated when engaging with your institution – both in person and when they aren’t within arm’s reach?
- Are Black people offered equitable remittance, on par with others in their caliber, and how are those payment processes made transparent?
- Are Black people engaged in other areas of leadership that don’t encircle Blackness or Whiteness?
THE IMPORTANCE OF BLACKNESS IN PUBLIC SPACE
Not a calling out, but a calling in.
The sight of Black imagination in public space, need not be temporary, but PERMANENT. “Temporary” is a term used in grant-making circles to appease funders’ aversion to risk. Without risk, there is no transformation. The white gaze that controls the capital and the resources is unqualified to validate or vet Black creations because the lens by which it is viewed is tainted by a superiority complex. The experiences of We, the People are not inferior, nor temporary. The white gaze has created a black hole (for lack of a better term) wherein wealthy white buyers both set the tone and value for Black Fine Arts. The same can be said for public arts, which is controlled in Indianapolis by white gatekeepers. We need more Black Art in Public Space!
Top leadership of Indianapolis’ major arts organizations and funders alike are white or white-presenting: The Arts Council of Indianapolis, Indiana Humanities, Big Car/Tube Factory, Central Indiana Community Foundation, Lilly Endowment Inc., and the Efroymson Family Fund. As of July 2020, The Arts Council of Indianapolis’ Indy Arts Guide (which includes a mostly comprehensive database of the city’s public artwork) has a count of 847 works. The chart below shows the ethnic breakdown of artists who created those works. With a city that has a population of 28 percent Black residents, the chart details a dramatic underrepresentation, with only 3.5 percent of public art works by Black artists.
NEED FOR PUBLIC POLICY
Black Lives Matter – ALWAYS. Hard Stop. Recently, the Mayor of D.C. commissioned a large, highlighter-yellow street mural along two blocks of 16th Street leading to Lafayette Square, reading BLACK LIVES MATTER. This act of defiance struck a note that reverberated nationwide. We’ve got to go deeper.
In the Midwest, cities like Chicago and Cincinnati stenciled their streets with something similar. On Saturday Aug. 1, – Indianapolis followed suit with a design on Indiana Ave., Indy’s nostalgic (if in name and no longer in nature) Black hub. In the conversation about public art, Indy must first be seen for what it is – not the Midwest but the Wild West, ignoring its rich demography. The unintelligible disregard for community members asto be co-designers of their built environment, too, is criminal. The lived experience of the people makes them experts. Somebody…Come. Get. Me. .
We’ve got to go deeper: I call on Indianapolis to establish a Public Arts Comprehensive Master Plan, a Public Arts Commission and a Department of Arts & Culture.
Our community’s creators and patrons deserve a dynamic and inclusive guide for the city’s forthcoming investment in public art. The Master Plan should address current policies and inform new ones. It should be regarded as an intentional reflection on community engagement, artistic excellence and comprehensive integration of culturally competent public art into city processes and civic life. It should first address the need for an audit of Indianapolis’ public artworks. It should then establish a Public Arts Commission to ensure that Indy honors its history and seeks to enlighten its future. In the creation and implementation of the aforementioned, We, the People transition from being invisible canvases to being visible designers.
These elements should be housed under a new Department of Arts and Culture. The Department will serve as a beacon, establishing a continued sense of belonging and activating the collective empathy and civic pride required for sustainable change and reconciliation. Culture is a human right. As expressed in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” It is our sacred duty to remove impediments blocking this right for all people. It is our duty to create spaces that surrender traditional power dynamics and instead encourage cultural understanding and appreciation.
Now, it is time we heed the resounding words, “Somebody, come get me,” uttered by a light extinguished too soon. Let us, the people – Indigenous People, Latinx People, Women People, Differently Abled People, LGBTQIA People, Black People – the Marginalized People, establish a sanctuary for ourselves. Let the cityscape and the landscape represent us. Let us design a more imaginative society where the Black lived experience is not pimped, co-opted, traumatized or hunted, but acknowledged, celebrated, and seen for the foundation it is – the very foundation of these United States of America. Let us live.
Danicia Monét is an arts & culture ambassador and urban planner pursuing her PhD on the User-Experience of Race. Her applied research is based on the context of Race & Space – Growing Critical Cultural Capacity in the Built Environment. As a fellow with Americans for the Arts for the Arts and Transportation for America she challenges the ideas of public space and place-making. Danicia holds a Bachelor in Urban Planning and Spanish and a Masters in Nonprofit Management with a focus on global relations and sustainability. She is a creative director, interaction designer and planner based in Indianapolis, IN. Learn more at DaniciaMonet.co
You can read more about the Dreasjon Reed case in coverage from our partners at The Indianapolis Recorder.